Scrambling for Funds
The culture and controversy of Columbia’s marching band By Grace Adee and Billie Forester
The Columbia University Marching Band may sardonically call itself “the cleverest band in the world,” but lately it has become one of the most underfunded: in October, the administration announced its decision to cut $15,000 of the organization’s $25,000 budget for next academic year.
CUMB, the organization’s affectionate and suggestive acronym, is nothing like the massive militaristic marching bands of state schools or the traditional band that played Seven Nation Army at your high school’s homecoming game. Part musical group and part comedy troupe, committed to their venerable oral tradition yet bent on challenging Columbia’s culture, the marching band has a past and present full of contradictions.
Legend and Lore
According to band lore, the Columbia University Marching Band formed in 1904 when seven college musicians and a high school clarinetist played the last game of the football season and then led a victory parade to a student hangout called the Lion Café. In 1905, both Columbia football and the band dissolved. But the band returned in 1913, and has existed ever since, except for a short hiatus during World War I.
For many years, CUMB was a fairly standard marching band, marching in formations and playing traditional instruments in support of Columbia sports teams. But around the 1950’s or 1960’s—the exact year is unclear—this began to change. “We realized that walking in straight lines was not something that we were great at or interested in,” said Vivian Klotz, BC ’20 and head manager of the band for the past year. “So they devised this scramble band format.”
A scramble band, also known as a scatter band, subverts the rigidity of the standard marching band in a number of ways. The Columbia band tends not to march; instead, they scramble around the field and tell jokes over the loudspeaker, eventually assembling themselves into a simple formation and playing music. CUMB claims to be one of the original scramble bands, though the matter remains disputed, as many of the other marching bands in the Ivy League scrambled around this time as well.
Many of the marching band’s traditions originate from this transition period, creating remarkable camaraderie across generations of alumni. “A lot of alumni weekends, we’ll be sitting around the piano playing songs, and there’s a dude who graduated in the 60’s who will know the same songs I know,” Klotz said.
Not only does the Marching Band not march; many of its members don’t even play band instruments either. That’s where the band’s segment of ‘miscie,’ short for miscellaneous, come in. While none of the miscies play traditional band instruments, they still come to rehearsals for the comedy and community. Some simply play instruments unconventional for a wind and brass marching band, like the violin or didgeridoo, but many of miscies stretch the band’s musical component even farther, repurposing “wet floor signs” and “toilet seats” as drums and shaking “El Capitan,” a parrot puppet with a maraca shoved up its rear end.
The miscies also play a crucial role in writing the comedic scripts that are so integral to the band’s performances. Indeed, Klotz makes it clear that no one is required to play any music at all to participate: “We’re not a music group. You don’t have to play an instrument, and you don’t have to have the desire to play an instrument to join the marching band, because we care so much about having this comedy aspect.”
Newly elected board member Josh Tate, CC ’22, emphasized the community spirit present at CUMB rehearsals, which combine traditions with lore and inside jokes. “If you’re in such a stress culture, it’s so important to have an outlet like that,” he said.
Sam Rowan, BC ’96, is one of the founders and leaders of the Columbia Marching Band Alumni Association. She called the band “a steward of the legacy of Columbia,” highlighting its role as a spirit organization for what can sometimes feel like a decidedly unspirited campus.
“If you ask anybody on campus, the band is one of the few groups where everybody can sing all of the fight songs, or people know a lot about the history of the school or the organization itself,” Rowan said.
According to the band, one of the most crucial ways they share their particular brand of school spirit is through the infamous Orgo Night.
Comedy and Controversy
Orgo Night is a marching band tradition that takes place each semester at midnight before the first day of finals. First occurring in 1975, the name “Orgo Night” comes from the rumor that the event first originated as an attempt to distract students studying for their organic chemistry exam the next day. As part of the tradition, the band invades Butler Library, putting on what has become the most wellknown of their notorious part-comedy, part-music performances.
Klotz described the joke as a way “to mess with people, you know, who believe that this one test is going to be the end-all-be-all.” She argued that the act of disrupting a “space that is really the center of stress culture at Columbia” is a valuable reminder to students that “every single moment of every single day doesn’t have to be for studying. There’s time for community on campus, for coming together.”
The night has become well-known, not only for being one of the more rambunctious Columbia traditions, but also for the risqué, often political, and at times divisive humor written and dramatized by the group’s writer, dubbed the “poet laureate.”
There are two main aspects to the controversy over Orgo Night. The more concrete issue has been the administration’s objections to the occupation of Butler Library, which began in December 2016 when CUMB was denied access to the main undergraduate library. That year, they elected to do their performance outside Butler instead.
In December 2017, however, the band defied administrative orders and elected to play inside Butler. Their board voted to do the same last semester but, according to Klotz, were told after briefing administrators that each band member who participated in the performance would be individually sanctioned. Because this would threaten students’ ability to attend Columbia, they decided to hold it outside instead. Officially, this disruption of Butler against administrative orders is the reason for the administration’s change in funding allocations.
But objections to Orgo Night started way before then. A few years ago, CUMB was embroiled in controversy because of the questionable racial and sexual content of their comedy routines. In May 2015, The New York Times ran an article about Orgo Night’s treatment of sexual assault prevention efforts on campus. While some of the jokes were directed at administration’s handling of sexual assault, mocking, for example, the arts option of the Sexual Respect Requirement, other jokes seemed to make light of sexual assault policy reform activism.
An op-ed in the Columbia Spectator from 2014 called the marching band “an unsafe space for students of color,” citing CUMB recruitment posters from that semester which featured racist images of Nicki Minaj getting slapped on the rear by two white men.
This year’s poet laureate Alex Parkhurst, CC ’19, has kept CUMB’s controversial history in mind while writing scripts for more recent Orgo Nights. She described the writing process leading up to Orgo Night as detailed, emphasizing, in particular, the large role that the band members play in revisions.
Illustration by Susie Steinfeld
“In the past, there were some very inappropriate jokes that I could just never see us doing now, and I do believe that is because the script process has changed,” said Parkhurst. “Before, we didn’t have this extensive review process where you would have to go to the band and talk about it, so thank god for that. Jokes like that would not happen with this current band.”
Parkhurst emphasized the importance of “punching up” at more powerful structures, as opposed to “making fun of people we have no right to make fun of.” But at the same time, the band still remains committed to using their platform to talk about controversial political issues on and off campus—with the acknowledgment that this might ruffle some feathers.
“I think there’s agreement in the band that we don’t think there are topics you should not joke about,” said Klotz. “There are stances that you should not take; there are ways that you should not joke about things. But I think that most people in the band agree that there’s nothing that’s truly off limits.”
Funding the Future
CUMB has been a uniquely funded student organization. Instead of getting their funds through either the Student Governing Board (SGB) or the Activities Board at Columbia (ABC), CUMB gets $10,000 from Columbia Athletics as well as $15,000 directly from Columbia College and Engineering— until next year, of course. Cristen Kromm, Dean of Undergraduate Student Life, informed band leaders in a meeting at the end of last year that they would need to become a recognized student group, most likely through ABC. “This would give the band the same privileges and responsibilities as all other recognized student groups, and would allow them to be funded in the same way as those groups,” explained a Columbia College spokesperson.
Many students might be surprised to learn that the marching band had a $25,000 budget in the first place. According to the band, about $15,000 of this is typically spent on buses to and from games; other funds are spent on food, so that students don’t need to buy extra meals on game days. Instrument repairs and uniforms are not accounted for by this budget; they are paid for by Columbia University Band Alumni Association. Klotz, Parkhurst, and Tate all emphasized that financial accessibility is the numberone priority as cuts are made. “We don’t really spend frivolously,” said Klotz. “All of our money is there so we can make the band an accessible organization to people of all financial backgrounds.”
By using funding as leverage to encourage the band to become a recognized student group, Columbia Administration claims their main motivation is to increase the marching band’s accountability through the structure that nearly every other student group on campus answers to as well.
“The push for the band to become a recognized student group is in direct response to the band’s decision to violate a directive from the Libraries and Provost in December 2017,” said a Columbia College spokesperson.
Band members argue that joining a student board will not allow them to recover the funds lost in next year’s budget cuts; new student groups tend to get less funding than more established ones, typically no more than a few hundred dollars. “We don’t know where the $15,000 dollars that as of now funds us will be going,” said Klotz. “I have not been told in any way that it will travel to the board that we choose to join.” Furthermore, the average budget allocated to all student clubs (old and new) is significantly lower than the $15,000 portion that CUMB will be losing. Student groups receiving funding through ABC, for example, received an average of $2,386.39 for the 2016-17 academic year.
So what next? They haven’t decided yet. “That’s a question for the next board, really,” said Klotz, who has just reached the end of her term. Tate, a member of the new board, says that there are many hours of discussion on that subject yet to come.
Culture or Counterculture?
At its core, the primary goal of Columbia’s Marching Band is not so different from any other: to act as a source of school spirit. Is this contradicted by their self-proclaimed identity as “the most nihilistic band in the world?” From the beginning, they have aimed to subvert the dominant culture, striking at everything from politicians to administrators, sports teams to Columbia as a whole.
But at a prestigious university in New York City that promotes itself as an institution of critical thought, should it be surprising that its marching band expresses school spirit through hypercritical, challenging, and sometimes abrasive comedy? From their ironic pretensions to their efforts at accessibility, from their valued historical traditions to their controversial emphasis on free speech, it’s possible that CUMB might be a product of Columbia’s culture more than anything else.
And in the same way Columbia can be shrouded in mystery, the marching band had some secrets of its own. The writers of this piece asked Tate if there was anything else we should know about the marching band. “GTB squared!” Tate declared with a slight chuckle. We asked him what that means. “I can’t tell you, but it’s the spirit of the band,” he replied.